Penn Jillette and Hayek: “I Don’t Know”

Lynne Kiesling

Penn Jillette, the taller and more vocal half of the magic performance duo Penn & Teller, has written a lovely and thoughtful essay as a companion to his appearance last night on Piers Morgan’s CNN show. It defies excerpting, so I encourage you to click through and read it in its entirety.

His theme: “I don’t know”, particularly with respect to religion and to helping the poor, leading him to conclude that he is an atheist libertarian. For example, about helping the poor he writes

Then he asked me what we could do to help poor people. I said I donated money, food, medical care, and services and he said, “No,” he meant, what could society do to solve the problem of poor people. Again, I was stumped.

He said the government had to do it, which I interpreted as another way of saying he didn’t know, but he thought that made me look mean … even though I do care and do try to help. …

And I don’t think anyone really knows how to help everyone. I don’t even know what’s best for me. Take my uncertainty about what’s best for me and multiply that by every combination of the over 300 million people in the United States and I have no idea what the government should do.

In this essay Jillette is channeling some of the most important ideas about the knowledge problem developed by Hayek and others, ideas that are the foundation of what we do here at KP — the limits of individual knowledge, the necessary limits of collective knowledge, and the humility that should arise as a consequence, both individually and in collective action/policy situations. Jillette is also channeling a lot of David Hume’s skepticism, not just in terms of religion but also in terms of empiricism and the limits of human reason.

Jillette’s essay is also charming in tone, reflecting respect for those who disagree with him and those with different life experiences and abilities. A very thought-provoking read.

2 thoughts on “Penn Jillette and Hayek: “I Don’t Know”

Comments are closed.